2016 Yearbook: Brian’s 10(ish) Best Games

Brian counts down his top games of the year.

10) Firewatch (Campo Santo, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

This land is your land

Perhaps the worst trend in recent gaming culture is this idea that only certain types of games really count as games. You’ll hear “walking simulator” thrown out like a pejorative about games like Firewatch, as though every important game in our medium’s history has level scores and swarms of enemies to kill with sick combos and headshots. Good gaming isn’t and shouldn’t be that exclusive, and Firewatch is a very good game.

Set in the Wyoming wilderness in the year 1989, Firewatch centers around Henry, a greiving husband running away from his wife’s diagnosis of dementia to take a job as a fire lookout; Delilah, his unseen supervisor; and their summer long romance/murder investigation/flirtatous ruminations on the meaning of relationships. It’s a wonderfully written, wonderfully stylized game that left some people cold with its decidedly curt ending, but I genuinely enjoyed it and thought it tapped into something most games don’t have the ability to understand. There’s a genuine sense of warmth and humanity on display here.

Also, it looks great and is just the right amount of challenging to not get in the way of its story, which is the primary attraction here. In a lot of ways, it’s a  more audacious and memorable game than some of the others here, but it’s probably a little too short to be as great as it could have been.

9) Batman: a Telltale Series (Telltale Games, PS4, XBO, PC)

This machine kills fascists

Speaking of adventure games, here we are at the annual Are We Tired of Telltale Games yet discussion? I’m not, at least not yet, because despite the bizarre formula they’ve fallen into, there’s not anyone else quite like them in the gaming landscape. This isn’t Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. No one else has really tried to bring back point and click adventure games like Telltale, and to this point, there’s still some novelty in that.

Besides, good writing never goes out of style, and despite some confusing choices, I’d say their recent effort, Batman: a Telltale Series (or Telltale’s Batman, or Batman, but Telltale This Time, or whatever we’re calling it) is worth the time. I wrote about the first two episodes at release, but got caught up with others afterwards. I think perhaps Telltale made a mistake in making so much out of this being their continuity, a new spin on the Batman mythos, that for so much of it ending up being the same characters doing more or less the same thing. Given that this stuff has been around for more than 75 years, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that this game, despite its many strength, falters most when it tries to have its cake and eat it, too. The most prominent example of this design is how, sometime in episode 3, the game’s cast just sort of stops expanding. It tries to tell a close, personal story with a cast of nearly two dozen characters, which is basically impossible, so the only thing left for the player is to face the same three or four enemies over and over again until it just sort of…stops.

That’s a common comic book staple, sure, but when this game’s excellent portrayals of the Joker, or Scarface, or Victor Zsasz show up for a few minutes, you’re left wondering why you can’t go hang out with them more instead of tangling with the nebulous, undefined Children of Arkham and whatever non-union equivalent of the Court of Owls nonsense they’ve worked up again.

Don’t let me make it sound like this game isn’t worth your time, however. The investigative stuff here is better than any Batman game before it has ever dreamed, and the conversations and overall storytelling style befits Telltale’s well-established pedigree. This version of Gotham, too, feels like a synthesis of the towering Art Deco monoliths of the Animated Series and the glowering contemporary claustrophobia of the Nolan films, and everything in between. It’s a truly excellent setting. Good enough to recommend, but perhaps not enough to love, which if you know my history with Batman, isn’t that high of a bar.

8) Titanfall 2 (Respawn Entertainment, PS4 and XBO)

Titanfall incoming

The first two games on this list were, despite their flaws, very unique sorts of major games to see in 2016. Titanfall 2 is very much not, and despite that, I kind of loved it. The latest in the long line of gung-ho military shooters with ineffectual-looking combat and gravelly-voiced white dudes with jump packs, it’s exactly the sort of game I tend to hate more and more these days. I haven’t played a Call of Duty game since the first Black Ops, and I probably won’t be changing that any time soon.

I had Titanfall for a bit in the halcyon days of the Xbox One, when nobody had released anything and nobody knew what was coming, and I found it charming. It had no campaign to speak of, which is generally why I play shooters at all anymore, but I liked the sense of forward momentum it had, and the titan fights were at least something new for the genre. Fast forward two and a half years and Respawn made themselves a proper game based on that endearing structure, and it ended up being pretty good. This game makes the very strong and good choice of having themed levels, which makes them stand out from one another very strongly. Not the *best* themed levels anyone made this year, but we’ll see more of that later.

A lot has been made of this game’s story, which is, of course, pure drivel. But it’s drivel focused on the perspective of its two player characters, generic pilotman Jack Cooper, his foster Titan BT-7274, and their ragtag adventures fighting whatever generic evil corporation these games use, I forget. It works well enough, and BT is vaguely sociopathic enough to end up on the right side of the robot companion spectrum. More HK-47 than Claptrap.

Anyways, it’s not a new sort of game, but it still has room for cleverness in it, and also you can fight giant robots with a sword. So, pretty good.

7) Final Fantasy XV (SquareEnix, PS4 and XBO)

Stand by me

I’ve got to be honest here. There was a stretch this summer where I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to play this game. For all their insipid storytelling, labyrinthine plots and overbearing teenliness (especially recently), the Final Fantasy games have some of the highest points in the history of the medium. Square was making mature, interesting, emotional stories starring multi-faceted and diverse sets of characters since at least 1991, and their streak of games to round out last century stands as one of the strongest runs in any developer’s history.

While it’s true the series has declined since the advent of HD systems, it still has its moments. Overall, that’s how I’d describe FFXV. The open-world system is perhaps a little misguided, the fighting isn’t up to even the most recent games’ admittedly mediocre par, and the characters are disappointingly skewed towards men (though if any series deserves the benefit of the doubt on that front, it’s this one). I don’t just mean the main party, but even most of the interesting side characters are men. Perhaps even worse than that, the only truly bad character in this game is a woman, and she’s the first woman you meet in the game.

Yet, I still found myself at least temporarily enraptured by the way the four characters (listless Prince Noctis, bouncy Prompto, burly Gladiolus and mannered Ignis, aka the old anime standbys of Sad Boy, Good Boy, Strong Boy and Smart Boy) ricochet off one another. Whether traipsing through the wilds on a hunt for some random monster, sharing photos and hanging out at their makeshift campsite, or cruising down the distinctly American-looking highways, these four rad dudes genuinely enjoy one another’s company, which is a nice swerve in the formula JRPGs (or Western ones) usually tend towards. It doesn’t hurt that the opening and closing few hours are the game’s strongest, and the villain this time around is one of the more well-written and performed antagonists the series has ever seen (I won’t spoil anything other than to say that every Final Fantasy should have a relatively humanoid main villain, and every game that descended into incoherent muck has missed that boat completely).

Final Fantasy is never not at least interesting, is what I’ll say, and there are times when this installment is the most interesting in fifteen years. There are other times when it’s frustrating or even outright dumb, but strangely I found myself very forgiving of those parts. It’s a game that you want to love, even if you don’t.

6) XCOM 2 (Firaxis Games. PC, PS4, XBO)

The only proper way to play XCOM 2

Sequels are a tricky thing, especially when they were never planned for. After the runaway success of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Maryland-based strategy game company Firaxis was left with an interesting dilemma: do we focus on story or gameplay? Strategy games, especially turn-based ones, are definitely more famous for the latter, often at the expense of the former, but the final act of the XCOM reboot all but erased the possibilty of a direct sequel.

So Firaxis did the smart thing and erased that continuity, setting the second game in an alternate timeline where the original XCOM (the group, not the game) was destroyed and survivors rallied together to form a resistance movement. It works because, again, this sort of game is generally not particularly narrative-heavy. So XCOM 2  differentiates itself from its predecessor mainly through changes in gameplay. A small stroke of genius is how those changes would be most impactful to veterans of the original game, forcing them to go through a larger learning curve than new players. Combat is faster, enemies are more aggressive and deadly, and most importantly, most fights have turn limits and timers, forcing the player to fight on the move and adopt more guerilla-style tactics.

One of the reboot’s biggest strengths was the amount of personality your voiceless cipher soldiers could show, through a lot of dumb hats and silly nicknames, and that’s on even greater display here.

All in all, the changes made to the XCOM formula, in my opinion the standard bearer for this entire sub-genre, are different enough to make this inevitable sequel feel a little less inevitable.

5) The Banner Saga 2 (Stoic. PC, PS4, XBO, Andoid & iOS)

The Banner Saga: producer of quality gaming screenshots since 2014.

So that stuff I said about games like this not really being story-focused? Throw that out the window. I didn’t get a chance to write about the original Banner Saga release, but given that this sequel is a direct continuation of the same overarching plotline, just consider this my thoughts on both games.

So The Banner Saga is, for lack of a better term, a strategy/adventure game. Starring a ever-growing, motley crew of humans and varl (a race of thousand-year-old horned giants) trying to outrun an army of…undead stone knights and some sort of apocalyptic shadow, these games are extremely unique. That uniqueness permeates every facet of their design. The animated art style, a reference to famed Disney animator Eyvind Earle made explicit through a major character, is truly unlike anything on the market, full of lush, colorful palletes and rich with Norse mythology. Speaking of mythology, the setting of these games is another incredibly unique thing to behold. The sun has stopped in the sky, ancient monsters roam the lands, and the major cities of the world are being erased, it’s one of the few truly apocalyptic games I’ve ever played. It’s no coincidence that this game plays like an older BioWare title, full of myth, history and ill portent, compressed to its best bits given that the three men responsible for it were all previously employed by the Albertan monolith.

The gameplay itself contributes even further to this sense of something that hasn’t ever been done before, and it took me awhile to understand why. The Banner Saga is, without question, the most successful adaptation of old-school tabletop gaming that I’ve ever seen. Most major character development happens in minor scenes where text-boxes pop up and a series of seemingly irreleveant choices are presented to the player. How do you deal with your caravan coming across a set of refugees? Do you accept them into your ranks? Give them some of your already scarce supplies and send them on their way? Rob them? What you choose might not have an immediate impact, but these things coalesce and combine in such a way that every single player will have come across a different variation of the story. What I like most about it is that, for the most part, these choices aren’t supposed to be “figured out” or part of some greater whole. They’re gut choices, miniature morality plays for you to do what you think feels right at the time. Sometimes, doing the assertive or pragmatic thing pays off more down the road. There’s no morality system to track what you’ve done, and there’s no commanding voice on high telling you to stay on the straight and narrow. There’s just survival.

This sort of bleak relativism is ingeniously woven into the gameplay as well, with your general supply count also being the only currency with which you can buy upgrades for your characters. So you have to choose between keeping your party members up to date or keeping the people you’ve been tasked with protecting alive. If you run out of supplies, people starve. If everyone starves, you lose. More importantly than losing, you fail.  Similarly, in combat, a character’s hit points and their attack attributes are one and the same, making someone closer to death weaker overall. This makes the combat perhaps a little too easy to break, but the second chapter does well to mitigate it by introducing a series of strange new enemies and mechanics to keep you on your toes.

Overall, I still can’t really put my finger on what about these games I find so interesting. There’s a distinct mood they inspire, a sort of perserverance in the face of true danger, a real sense of impending doom and people scrabbling around to escape it that permeates everything. It’s a beautiful, elegiac game and the best Kickstarter game I’ve ever played, and I think anyone who considers themselves an RPG fan owes it to themselves to try it out.

4) DOOM (id Software, PS4 and XBO)

Rip and tear, rip and tear

As I said in my initial reviewDOOM does a remarkable job of recapturing what made the original games not just first-person shooters, but the first-person shooters. The first ones. What I didn’t really talk about in that first piece was how DOOM 1 and 2’s gameplay really differentiated it. I focused more on the spirit of those legendary games more than the mechanics. In a recent part of his fantastic Game Maker’s Toolkit series, Mark Brown goes into depth on what he (and Harvey Smith, praised be his name) call Orthogonal Unit Differentiation. Put in the simplest terms possible, this means that in-game units behave like chess pieces. They all exist within the same general mechanics, but have disparate, noticeable attributes that separate them from one another.

To put it even simpler: the enemies in DOOM have to be dealt with differently from one another. There’s a pattern to defeating each and every one that can repeated, flipped around and combined in nearly infinite variations. As with the original Doom, every encounter forces the player to think more tactically, but in a way that doesn’t feel as plodding or as drawn out as those sorts of shooters often can be. Knowing what order to attack in, what angles you can be attacked from, becomes almost second nature to any good Doom player. This new game perhaps isn’t as lyrical or poetic in it simplicity, but it certainly comes closer to this core game mechanic than any shooter since at least the original Halo game in forcing the player into this dance macabre. In this way, more than any other, this new game lives up to its predecessors, and made it a unique, fresh and essential game for any FPS fan in 2016.

3) Inside (Playdead. PC, PS4, XBO)

Mist and shadow

There may not be a more effective game-making tool than perspective. First person games have an inherent advantage at this sort of thing, be it properly framing the towering Citadel of Half-Life 2, the soaring cliffs of the original Halo or the oppressive depths of BioShock, FPS games are generally very good at communicating just where the player is in relation to the world around them. It’s the biggest part of what we call “atmosphere,” and until now, I would’ve said it was impossible for a side-scrolling platformer to be more atmospheric than any of those behemoths.

I forgot about Playdead. After achieving the unachievable in making the Xbox 360 an indie game haven with their 2010 masterwork LIMBO, one could have been forgiven in thinking the Danish darlings had seen their peak as game makers. Inside, which like its predecessor, focuses on the struggles of a silent young boy trying to escape from unimaginable horrors, is the most remarkable sort of spiritual successor in that it makes the original game irrelevant. Eschewing the first game’s stark minimalist black and white color tone, Inside is a more evocative and colorful affair, though only slightly, and without any semblance of voice acting (or traditional “plot”), it’s the sort of game that relies on world-building, environmental storytelling and the great lost art of mystery to get its point across.

I won’t talk too much about that point, or the events that surround it; suffice it to say that the last 30 minutes or so of this game are as remarkable, shocking and relentlessly creative as I’ve ever experienced. It’s just a remarkable game, despite my general disinterest in platformers these days. Inside is the exception to that rule, and it’s the third best game in what ended up being a very strong year.

2) Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (Eidos Montreal. PC, PS4, XBO)

Techno-warrior

This game feels less like a response to its predecessor (Human Revolution, one of my favorite games, or the original Deus Ex, one of my very favorite games, take your pick), than it does a response to the sudden re-emergence of the Immersive Sim genre, namely 2012’s Dishonored. These sorts of games have always existed in a bit of an echo chamber, bouncing ideas and concepts off of one another, sharing developers, even sharing easter eggs, but Mankind Divided (or DXMD), feels almost desperate in its attempts to replicate Arkane’s runaway hit.

Everything, from the Eastern European setting, to the densely packed, multi-tier level design, to even the new powers themselves, feel like blatant attempts to mimick the emergent, often explosive mechanisms that make Dishonored what it is. While I won’t fault the game for trying this, as some of these aspects add greatly to the game, it does feel a little more restricted than a proper Deus Ex game should. These games aren’t about tight controls and clockwork mechanisms, they’re about something…more. There’s a sense of freeform expression, of infinite possibility spaces and globe-spanning conspiracy, that Deux Ex is founded upon. While I love DXMD’s Prague, it being the only explorable city space is incredibly disappointing to me. It just doesn’t feel quite like a good Deus Ex game should. Even then, it’s still a Deus Ex game. It’s great. Just not as great as it aspires to be, and the less said about the incredibly awkward Aug Rights metaphor, the better (though it does work quite well in the smaller-scale side quest style stuff).

In the end, the side quests are what I’ll remember this game most fondly for, since the core plotline is almost shockingly short and small in scale. But those long hours spend prowling Prague, solving murders and uncovering cyber-assassins was a thoroughly unique experience.

1) Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios. PC, PS4, XBO)

Unreal city. Under the brown fog of a winter dawn

I know the world of Dishonored 2 as well, after two playthroughs, as any other I can think of in my long, long lifetime of gaming. I can see a screenshot and more often than not, instantly recall where it is in which level, what it connects to, where it goes. This is because Dishonored 2 rewards those two attributes every game should strive towards above all others: patience, and creativity.

As I’ve said before, it’s a game of immense richness and mechanical brilliance, two traits that often find themselves at odds in game design. A game like this is anything but often. As the second and more self-evidently glorious of the two Immersive Sims released in the fall of 2016, Dishonored 2 has the luxury of knowing exactly what it is, what it wants to do and how it’s going to do it. Like the first game, it’s not one obviously brimming with content. There’s no repository of sidequests, no customizable hub area, no challenge maps (though those came eventually for the original). It’s a game so confident in its construction that it knows such things are superfluous for a game made the right way. The way Warren Spector, Harvey Smith and the rest of Ion Storm envisioned nearly twenty years ago.

When I said that Mankind Divided feels less like a response to the Deus Ex lineage of old than to modern titles, this is the modern title I had in mind, and the comparison finds Eidos Montreal’s sterling effort lacking. I know the streets of Karnaca because I’ve bled on them. I’ve died on them. I’ve stalked and failed and tried again and killed on them. I’ve inched across them, slowly, soaking in every detail of every wondrous sign and all the incredible architecture. It’s a game that just makes sense to the reptile parts of my brain. It’s on my wavelength on a fundamental level, and it’s the best game of 2016.

 

Other games: Quantum Break (Remedy Entertainment), Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 (Dimps), NBA 2k17 (Visual Concepts)

Other other games (that I haven’t played yet but assume are good enough to make this): Gears of War 4, Uncharted 4, The Last Guardian, Overwatch, Hitman

**********************

Revised Top 10 (as of May 2017)

  1. Dishonored 2
  2. The Last Guardian
  3. Inside
  4. DOOM
  5. HITMAN: the First Season
  6. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
  7. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  8. The Banner Saga 2
  9. XCOM 2
  10. Titanfall 2
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